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A “Historical” Adam?

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April 15, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
A “Historical” Adam?

Today's entry was written by David Opderbeck. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Here on the The BioLogos Forum there has recently been a spirited discussion resulting from various posts and videos on the nature of “Adam.” I’m grateful that a forum for such open discussion exists. I find many aspects of this discussion immensely helpful. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’m not fully satisfied. I’m prepared to accept the basic facts of human evolution. I'm also prepared to consider generously the views of the many fine theologians and scholars writing here on BioLogos concerning a non-"literal" Adam. However, I’m not prepared to suggest that these facts elide any possibility of a “historical” Adam.

My concerns are theological. Significant parts of the Christian Tradition have always taught that human beings are incapable of not sinning; that this incapability is a form of corruption and not an inherent human weakness that can be overcome by merely human effort; and that this corruption was passed on organically from Adam to his descendants. If we elide any historical Adam and any “real” mechanism for the transmission of original sin, this raises some important difficulties for many Christians. In the recent past, this move has often led to Pelagian views of human nature, and then to merely existentialist views of Christian faith that cease to be meaningfully “Christian.” In addition, whatever approach one takes to the question of Biblical "inerrancy," it seems to many Christians, including myself, that the Biblical narrative is difficult to hold together without a "real" primal event of sin by humanity's progenitors.

My own theological presuppositions, then, compel me to consider ways in which the best scientific evidence can be accepted without giving up entirely on a "historical" Adam. So how can a historical Adam be reconciled with human evolution?

The biggest problem here, in my view, is the population genetics data described in in a post by Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk. There is compelling evidence that current human genetic diversity cannot have derived from only one breeding pair. We can construct any variety of scenarios under which God "selected" some hominid pair to be "Adam and Eve," but none of those scenarios answer this population genetics data. "Adam and Eve" would have had many brothers, sisters, cousins, and so on, who also would have passed some of their genes on to us.

I've puzzled over this question for a long time, and here is an approach I believe might be fruitful: the distinction between "genetics" and "genealogy." The Biblical writers and editors did not know anything about "genetics." When Paul says in Romans 5:12 that "sin entered the world through one man," he is not commenting on the modern science of genetics. He is referring to a genealogical line in the context of ancient uses of genealogies.

A good comparison here is the Biblical notion of Abraham as the father of the Jewish people. Hebrews 11:12 says that “from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (emphasis added). (In fact, the word man in the translation does not appear in the Greek. Read literally, the texts says that from "one ... came descendants....")

I suspect that most of us would not be surprised to learn that, in the generations between Abraham and the first century, the Jewish gene pool would have become significantly diluted. Even if some of Abraham’s genes remained in the first century Jewish gene pool, because of intermarriage, there would have been a great deal of genetic diversity from people outside of Abraham’s line, including Canaanites, Moabites, and others.

Indeed, the Bible itself tells us that the Israelites repeatedly intermarried with surrounding people, often to their great detriment, as when King Solomon catered to the idol-worship of his foreign wives (see 1 Kings 11:1-6). Non-Jews—people who according to scripture itself were not physical heirs of Abraham—were considered by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to be part of the Abrahamic line of redemption, to the point of being included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: Tamar and Rahab, both Canaanite women, and Ruth, a Moabite woman. And Rahab is even mentioned again in the “Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame” (Hebrews 11:31)?

So how can the writer of Hebrews suggest that the Jews came from “one" (or "one man") when in the same passage he mentions a Canaanite woman who was not a direct descendant of Abraham? What about the progenitors of the Canaanite and Moabite family lines of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and of many other non-Jews who married into Abraham’s line over the centuries?

I confess I’m not a professional Biblical scholar, but from my study of scripture and its context, it seems to me that genealogy, in the ancient context, is at heart about the representative responsibility of the progenitor and of other key figures in the genealogical line. It is of course true that ancient genealogy also involves physical descent, but not every member of the progenitor’s line necessarily would have to be a direct physical descendant of the progenitor alone.

It seems to me potentially very significant for our conversation about Adam that people who were not physically descended from Abraham were included in the Biblical genealogy of redemption that derives from “one man,” Abraham. They were grafted into the Abrahamic line by marriage. Is it likewise possible that the universal genealogical line of “Adam” could include the in-grafting of physical lines of descent outside of Adam’s direct line, with “Adam” still remaining the progenitor with representative responsibility for the resulting mass of humanity?

Once again, the Bible itself seems to have no problem with this possibility. The story of the mark of Cain seems to assume that Adam and Eve were not the only humans alive in their times. (See Gen. 4:15). Apparently, Cain’s descendants intermarried with the people Cain eventually encountered. The descendants of Cain’s descendants would all have been descendants of Adam, but they also would have acquired genetic material from other people, just as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and others infused non-Abrahamic genetic material into the Abrahamic line.

What I’m suggesting is scientifically plausible. There is no problem at all in suggesting that every person alive today physically can trace his or her lines of descent—his or her “family tree”—to encompass a single pair in the recent or distant past. The problem arises when we try to suggest that this pair were the only humans alive at the time and that all of our present genes derive only from a single pair.

For example, I have a family tree for my father’s side that goes back to the 1600’s. If you look at the generation of Opderbecks alive in the 1600’s on that document, you’ll see that all the Opderbecks alive today can locate Johan and Christina Opderbeck, married circa 1730, in their own lineages. This does not mean Johan and Christina Opderbeck were the only Opderbecks, much less the only human beings, alive in 1730. The genetic makeup of present-day Opderbecks is quite diverse and reflects input from a wide range of other people. Nevertheless, we all share a recent common ancestral couple, Johan and Christina. (For a more technical discussion, see Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans).

It is true that the sort of idea I’m floating isn’t strictly biologically monogenetic. However, it seems to me that it could preserve Paul’s federal theology and provides a plausible, even Augustinian, mechanism for the propagation of original sin.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a “concordist” scenario of the sort that suggests the Bible contains “science” that was ahead of its time. I think it’s obviously right that we can’t hang on to literalism about “Adam” and the “fall” in the classical sense of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” However, like many evangelical Christians, my theological presuppositions compel me to look for some “literalism” about the “fall” in the sense of it being a real ontological “event” in space and time. And I don’t see any reason not to say that Gen. 2-4 is at least a highly stylized literary portrayal of “real” events. Science is helping us understand the form of the Bible’s “fall” narratives, but not eliding their essential content.

In short, Biblical genealogy is in some sense about biological relationships, but it primarily concerns spiritual-representative relationships. Biblical genealogy knows nothing of genomics or population genetics. The Bible itself, in its discussion of Abraham, demonstrates that descent from "one man" cannot be a reference to genetic science. If we move the search for a “literal” Adam away from genetics and into the spiritual and relational aspects of human nature, then, we act in a way that is more faithful to the text. And science cannot comment one way or the other on whether there is a spiritual-representative “Adam” ultimately connected to everyone’s family tree. The population genetics data concerning human evolution then pose a variety of fascinating, but perhaps less theologically troublesome, open questions.

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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pds - #10352

April 19th 2010

Beaglelady and Ben,

I had several thoughts.  Like Ben notes, it seems like a creation ex nihilo.  Presumably the fish were dead but fresh and therefore had “apparent age.”  Clearly God was not trying to fool the people.  The “apparent age” was just a side effect of the miracle to feed the people.

There seems to be no reason to think the fish did not have DNA.  If a biologist did a population genetics analysis and extrapolated back and drew historic inferences using naturalistic presuppositions, she would be wrong, I think.

I was also struck by the verse that follows after he walks on the water:  Mark 6:51-52 “And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves , but their hearts were hardened.

What did they not understand?  I have some ideas, and how it applies to recent topics here.

beaglelady - #10371

April 19th 2010

What did they not understand?  I have some ideas, and how it applies to recent topics here.

Obviously that was directed to me, and perhaps also to Venema and Falk also. 

I don’t see how this miracle is really and truly creation ex nihilo, rather, it appears to me to be the generation of additional material from existing natural loaves and fish. This miracle is usually known as the “multiplication of the loaves and fishes.”  The few loaves and fish turned out to be enough in the hands of Jesus. 

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

- John 6: 8-11

beaglelady - #10372

April 19th 2010


I do accept miracles, and never said that I didn’t.  And I don’t think this screws up studies such as the one done by Venema and Falk.  If you think otherwise, then we cannot dismiss the Book of Mormon, which claims that the native Americans (Indians) are descendants of the “10 lost tribes” of the ancient Israelite.

dopderbeck - #10421

April 20th 2010

The loaves and the fish is an interesting example.  If we have to think about it this way (I’m not sure we do), would the loaves and the fish from a genetic perspective appeared to have been clones?  This wouldn’t really help with the problem we’re addressing re: Adam, because the genetic evidence does not suggest some massive wave of cloning at some point in human history, nor does scripture seem to suggest that God created multiple clones of Adam.  God certainly could have done this, or He could have miraculously diversified the genetic material of Adam’s descendants in order to provide them with better disease resistance (the most diverse portion of the human genome seems to be the major histocompatibility complex, which relates to disease resistance).  But is that really the best inference?  In light of the use of the term “one man” to refer to Abraham as the progenitor of Israel, is a string of unrecorded miracles what scripture and Biblical theology require?  It seems to me that, at the very least, we have to have multiple ways of thinking through this in play.

Martin Rizley - #10478

April 20th 2010

It seems to me quite obvious that God has done many ‘unrecorded miracles’ in the course of history, and that is what introduces a measure of uncertainty and/or error into the historical inferences that biologists draw from the physical data when interpreted on the basis of naturalistic assumptions.  Mainstream science assumes that the natural world is in a state of ‘permanent equilibrium,’ with the physical constants of the universe remaining invariable in all places and at all times since the beginning of the universe.  I think that assumption is incompatible with a biblical worldview, which views the natural world as being in a state of “punctuated equilibrium”—with long, tranquil periods of stability being periodically ‘punctuated’ by ‘miracle-cluster events’ involving a host of ‘unrecorded miracles.’ I don’t see how anyone could doubt that these ‘punctuation’ moments in history include the period of creation itself, the period immediately after the Fall (when supernaturally caused physical changes took place in the earth), the period of the Flood and its aftermath, the period of the Exodus, the period of Elijah and Elisha, the period of Christ and the apostles;

Martin Rizley - #10479

April 20th 2010

(continued from #10478 above)
. . .all of these were ‘punctuation’ moments in earth’s history in which nature’s laws were temporarily suspended at certain exact locations and exact moments on the earth, as God’s power outside the physical universe supernaturally and miraculously ‘invaded the system’ of nature to affect the physical world in dramatic ways, leaving in its wake certain physical changes in the earth’s structure, the structure of the genome, etc., that would only be ‘misinterpreted’ if interpreted on naturalistic principles, in accordance with the assumption of ‘permanent equilibrium’ in the natural world.

beaglelady - #10516

April 20th 2010

Genetics shows that the American Indians are Asian, but the Book of Mormon claims that the 10 lost tribes of Israel fled to America and were the ancestors of the American Indians.  So maybe since God miraculously pushes genes around, I can’t dismiss the Book of Mormon?

Martin Rizley - #10523

April 20th 2010

Beaglelady,  The Book of Mormon is descredited by the way it contradicts the apostolic faith that was delivered by the apostles to the church of the first century.  Mormonism is full of doctrinal errors that flatly contradict the apostolic faith—that is why it safely be rejected by those who believe the Bible, because the Holy Spirit never contradicts Himself.  If the Book of Mormon were truly from God, it would agree with the Bible.  Moreover, truths revealed in the Bible should be received on the authority of God who revealed them, not because those truths happen to agree or disagree with the fallible inferences that fallible men draw from the science of genetics.  The apostles never invited anyone to believe their doctrines on the basis of inferences drawn from genetics, but on the basis of what God had revealed to them by special revelation.  As Paul put it, “The gospel I preached is not something that man made up.  I did not receive it from man nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”  We either believe Paul and receive His teaching, or we call him a liar and reject his teaching.  We have no right to modify his teaching in any way since it is from God.

beaglelady - #10534

April 20th 2010

So that means I cannot blow off the book of Mormon based on genetics?

Martin Rizley - #10544

April 20th 2010

Beaglelady, It means that if you base your beliefs on the evolving science of genetics, your beliefs will also evolve—interminably.  The apostolic faith is not an ‘evolving’ faith, constructed by men out of partial and provisional knowledge, but a revealed faith, based on the unlimited knowledge of the God who delivered it ‘once for all’ to the saints.  The apostolic faith was accredited long ago by the many signs, wonders and miracles that Christ and His apostles performed in the first century—to those proofs no further proof needs to be added.  There was never any need to discredit Mormonism through genetics; long before genetics was developed, the Christian faith had already been proven true, and its truth discredited Mormonism from the first moment Joseph Smith began hawking his wares.  Neither does the truth of apostolic Christianity rest on what modern geneticists affirm or deny; if we based our faith in the Bible on genetics, rather than on the self-authenticating Word itself whose truth has been confirmed by ‘many infallible proofs,’ that would be like moving a house from a foundation of rock to a foundation of sand to make the house more immovable.

beaglelady - #10553

April 21st 2010

It wasn’t just the Mormons who believed the Indians came from the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Many non-Mormon Americans once believe this, a long time ago.  Do you think it could be a possibility, or does genetics have any relevance in discrediting this notion? Does genetics have any relevance anywhere? What about in a court of law, in cases of rape or paternity?

Karen Pritchard - #10555

April 21st 2010

I love it, the miracle of the loaves and fishes - So, does this mean Jesus was the first to perfect cloning?!  Sorry, I generally just lurk, but this one has had me giggling all day.  Thanks!

Martin Rizley - #10557

April 21st 2010

Beaglelady,  Of course genetics can be used to ‘prove’ things with varying degrees of assurance most of the time; but as I pointed out in #10479 above, a Christian view of history involves recognizing the fact that there have been certain ‘punctuation’ moments in the history of the earth in which nature’s laws have been temporarily suspended, as God’s power outside the universe has supernaturally and miraculously ‘invaded the system’ of nature to affect the physical world in dramatic ways.  It is quite possible, for example, that God intervened supernaturally in the aftermath of the Fall or the Flood to ‘tweek’ the human genome in a way that would create genetic diversity to the benefit the human race.  David Opderbeck admits that God “could have miraculously diversified the genetic material of Adam’s descendants in order to provide them with better disease resistance (the most diverse portion of the human genome seems to be the major histocompatibility complex, which relates to disease resistance).”  That is why it is unwise to use geneticsto deny clear biblical teaching concerning the descent of all humanity from one man who represented us all and in whom we are all naturally condemned.

dopderbeck - #10699

April 21st 2010

Beglelady—I don’t think the best reason to disregard the Book of Mormon is because of genetic evidence re: the lost tribes—unless you also want to say that the Bible can be dismissed whenever archeological or other scientific evidence seems to contradict it.  Faced with such apparent contradictions, we Christians make hermeneutical moves like the one I tried to make in my post, or like Pete Enns and others have made with respect to “accommodation” (or both).  If we have to make such hermeneutical moves, why do we still adhere to Christianity?  Because the person of Jesus is God’s fullest self-revelation and all of scripture must be read through a Christocentric and Christotelic lens.  So I would say this:  the first and best reason not to to take the Book of Mormon as scripture is that it does not point to Jesus as the divine son of God.  After that conclusion has been made we can point out all the other problems with the claims made in that text.

dopderbeck - #10701

April 21st 2010

Martin (#10478)—the problem is that as you multiply miracles you undermine the ability to know truth.  How do I know that God didn’t miraculously create this entire conversation just now?  How can I have some certainty that this conversation represents a historical train of thought between real people over time?  How can I believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead in the first century rather than God having just now miraculously created a set of documents, institutions and memories that apparently attest to that fact but which never really existed in time?

One of the great contributions of Christianity to epistemology was the belief that the universe was created by God with inherent regularity.  Miracles are extraordinary exceptions to that regularity, usually connected to some particular blessing and/or proclamation of God’s coming Kingdom.  If miracles are the norm rather than extraordinary exceptions, we can’t really know whether anything is “real.”

beaglelady - #10704

April 21st 2010

I never said that the best reason to reject the BoM is because of genetic evidence.  There are many excellent reasons to reject Mormonism, too many for me to list here.  The point is, that the study of natural history alone  shows that the ENTIRE BoM (not a few chapters, or a section in a specific genre)  is helplessly, totally false.  Therefore it can be rejected out of hand without even considering faith issues.  It you don’t accept genetics or any other aspect of natural history, it’s going to be harder to argue with Mormons. 

And Mormons do believe that Jesus is the divine son of God. Trouble is, they believe that all Mormons are literal sons and daughters of God.  And they all have a kind of pre-existence before coming to earth.  After life on earth and then death,  they go through some sort of heavenly progression and eventually become gods and goddesses, each with his own planet! (why not? I love star trek.)  You can’t make this stuff up.

beaglelady - #10705

April 21st 2010

btw, I’m not kidding!!!!

Martn Rizley - #10778

April 22nd 2010

doperderbeck,  If a person’s thinking is really governed by a biblical worldview, they could never entertain the outrageous ideas you fear will result if we allow for ‘punctuation’ moments in the course of history involving ‘miracle-cluster events.’  A biblical view of history does not see history as one vast illusion created in the mind, “Matrix” -fashion, by a God who is out to deceive people.  However, neither does a biblical view of history allow for the belief that the course of history has been one smooth naturalistic process in which the physical world has been governed 100% of the time by unvarying natural laws that God Himself has been unable or unwilling to suspend at any moment (that is the view of mainstream science, which sees the natural world as being in a state of ‘permanent equilibrium.’)  Rather, the biblical view sees the natural world as being in a state of ‘punctuated equilibrium,’ with the material world conforming 99.9999% of the time to predictable physical constants. (continued)

Martn Rizley - #10779

April 22nd 2010

It is that .0001% of the time that God has intervened miraculously in the world that makes it impossible for Christians to approach the study of natural history on purely naturalistic assumptions.  From a Christian perspective, one must allow (for example) the possibility that God did ‘tweek’ the human genome miraculously at some point in the past to create greater biological diversity—perhaps for the purpose of disease rsistance, as you suggest.  Does that mean that it is impossible to know the past at all through scientific inference?  That doesn’t follow.  Because God normally governs the world through certain physical constants, we can practice forensic science with reasonable assurance in matters relating to the known or recent past.  It is when science assumes that God has NEVER intervened miraculously in the world, then tries to interpret the data without reference to God and His Word, that science is treading on thin ice. God’s miraculous interventions in history makes it impossible to take that approach.

dopderbeck - #10780

April 22nd 2010

Martn (#10778)  said:  A biblical view of history does not see history as one vast illusion created in the mind, “Matrix” -fashion, by a God who is out to deceive people.

I respond:  exactly, which is why we can’t live with an epistemology in which every uncomfortable or hard to explain fact is accounted for by multiplying miracles that are not mentioned in scripture.

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